Plain Vanilla? Not a Chance

From tropical orchids to your cookie recipe, this classic natural flavour never gets old.

by Iain Ilich

It’s a staple of every well-stocked professional kitchen and home pantry, but how much have you thought about the story behind that little bottle of vanilla? Where does it come from, why is it so expensive and why do chefs keep choosing natural vanilla over far cheaper artificial options?

“I love vanilla!” says Franck Bouilhol, the Edmonton pastry chef and ice-cream maker behind Little Bear Gelato. “Vanilla makes everything better. I love to use it for my apple sauce (apple tart, apple turnover), ice cream, flan Parisien or crème brûlée.”

Where it all began

But as much as it’s a vital ingredient in every kitchen, including Franck’s, it’s one with a curious past and a supply-challenged present.

Vanilla’s origins lie on the tropical southeast coast of Mexico, where the finicky vanilla orchid still yields flowers that, when pollinated, develop into long pods that take nine months to ripen on the vine. After picking, the pods are cured through an elaborate process (another nine months) that preserves the vanilla while developing its flavour. In all, it’s an extremely labour-intensive crop to produce.

Cultivation eventually spread to Tahiti, as well as to the islands of Réunion (formerly known as Bourbon) and Madagascar, where it flourished, and where about half of all vanilla is grown today. Madagascar Bourbon vanilla is now the standard specialty vanilla.

“I’ve been a few times to La Réunion island near Madagascar,” says Franck, who originally hails from France, “and the smell of fresh vanilla beans in the local market makes it a unique experience.”

Prices and eggs in a basket

As much of the world’s vanilla supply is dependent on Madagascar, a crop failure there is felt by pastry chefs around the world. This happened most recently in 2017, when Cyclone Enawo slammed into the island, destroying an estimated 30 per cent of the crop, ensuring there would be nowhere near enough vanilla to meet global demand.

Following the cyclone, vanilla prices surged, and wholesale prices to chefs are still hovering around $150 per four ounces of vanilla beans, which doesn’t go a long way in a busy pastry kitchen. Industrial production of cookies and other baked goods can make do with artificial vanilla, but chefs who rely on natural vanilla have had no choice but to adapt. According to Franck, many pastry chefs have been turning to natural vanilla paste as a cost-saving measure. Home cooks may grumble that a small bottle of vanilla extract now costs $20, but if you make natural vanilla ice cream for a living, the financial pinch is more acute.

Vanilla Types

There are three typical types of vanilla extracts and beans available to bakers in Canada: Madagascar Bourbon, Tahitian and Mexican. The one you should choose comes down to what you have on hand, and what flavour you’re aiming for in your baking or cooking.

Madagascar Bourbon vanilla is the closest there is to an all-purpose vanilla, and if you could only pick one to keep in your pantry, this is it. It’s a good choice for baking, as it can handle heat well. Try this one in cakes, cookies and French toast.

Vanilla from Tahiti is known for its more floral, fruity characteristics, with cherry and anise-like notes. It’s not fond of heat, so it’s most prized for use in pastry creams, ice cream and custards, where its unique complexity has room to shine.

“I mostly use Bourbon vanilla from Madagascar,” says Franck. “I use Tahiti vanilla for very specific pastry. It’s stronger than the Bourbon but also more difficult to source. The production is really small compared to Bourbon vanilla.”

Mexican vanilla is far more difficult to track down, and the quality varies by brand. If you get it from a reputable manufacturer, expect it to have a more warm, spicy profile than the standard Madagascar Bourbon, with a hint of clove or nutmeg. Just beware the dubious fake extracts sold to tourists in Mexico.

Real vs. Artificial

Vanilla bean prices have a habit of swinging wildly up and down, causing both grief in producing areas and in bakery expense reports. And yet, chefs keep choosing to use real vanilla over the artificial substitute. Because, as chefs see it, there simply is no substitute.

“I really do my best to not use chemical products in my recipes, so artificial vanilla has absolutely no place in my kitchen,” says Franck, as if there was any question. “How dare you!” he adds, cheekily.

Quick Vanilla Facts

According to author Tim Ecott’s book, Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid, more than half of the vanilla produced in the world is now destined for the U.S. and half of that is used by the dairy industry.

While extract is the most common form of vanilla found at retail, a few supermarkets are now carrying it in bean form. Vanilla paste is difficult for home bakers to find, as it is most commonly used in professional kitchens. Gourmet food specialty shops should carry beans and extracts from multiple places, and maybe even some paste if you’re lucky.

Under optimal conditions, vanilla extract will keep for roughly three years after its produced, while beans should be used within two years. If beans are dry and hard instead of pliable, they’re too old.

According to specialty vanilla supplier Nielsen-Massey, you should never store vanilla in the fridge or freezer. The cold will have a negative effect on the uniform mix in an extract and chilling beans can speed up mold growth.

Vanilla Sugar
The simplest vanilla recipe in the world is vanilla sugar, yet it’s also a deeply satisfying winter favourite that many consider to be a pantry mainstay. All it takes is two ingredients, a sealed jar and a bit of patience. Consider making a few jars to gift to friends over the holidays or put together a batch for your own holiday baking needs. It’s great added to tea, sprinkled on top of holiday drinks, used to jazz up whipped cream, drifted over freshly-cut fruit or used in baking—either dusted on, or incorporated into batter in place of a portion of regular sugar.

2 c granulated sugar, divided
1 vanilla bean
1 jar (glass, a bit larger than 500 ml), with a clean, scent-free lid

Add 1 cup of granulated sugar to the glass jar.

With a sharp knife, cut the vanilla bean along the length, splitting it open and exposing the tiny seeds inside.

Scape the seeds out, then add them to the sugar in the jar.

Add the remaining vanilla pods to the jar, then top up the jar with the rest of the sugar.

Put the lid on the jar, close it tight, then give it a good shake for a minute.

For the next two weeks, continue to give the jar occasional shakes.

After two weeks, your vanilla sugar should be ready to use.

Makes 2 cups of vanilla sugar.

  • Chef Chael MacDonald with Kind’s custard base
  • Adding vanilla paste
  • Adding vanilla extract
  • Pouring into the batch freezer
  • Vanilla ice cream right out of the freezer. It has the consistency of soft serve)
  • The finished product in Kind’s pumpkin spice cone

Iain Ilich blogs about curious grocery items at He recommends against Googling “vanilla” from a workplace computer.